hunting bin laden
Thomas Pickering

He is U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs. In this interview he discusses how Osama bin Laden is a real threat, and why Muslim anger against the U.S. is misdirected.
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Mr. [Pickering], maybe you can give us a sense of what the real threat is from Osama bin Laden.

thomas pickeringWe take it seriously. We have received ... since August more information on threats stemming from him. ... This individual has a broad network he's established over the years, relationships with very many dissident groups, which support him and work with him, and we're quite convinced that he would like to strike again if [he could] find a way to do that. We have tightened our defenses ... all around the world, and we continue to treat him as a very serious threat, as a kind of different sort of a terrorist threat. He's not a state, and he's not a state terrorist, but he is an individual who seems to be absolutely determined to destroy innocent individuals in search of some political objective of his. ...

The United States has made it very clear that his declaration of war against us is to be met in all possible ways, to defend our people, our interests, our international public. I think you have to say in a sense that he's built a network, and it's a network built [of] people who are personally loyal to him, ... who have common sensitivities about issues, or common approaches to questions. So I would say the network ... involves many organizations, not all of [which] are completely subservient to him, but many are prepared to do his bidding, some of them for money, some of them out of religious interest, and I think misplaced religious interest. ... He [has] got people who are bound together to him in some kind of misplaced sense of what Islam really stands for. Islam comes from the Islamic word for peace or submission, and it means peace and submission to God, and so in a sense he is a perversion, I suppose, of these kinds of beliefs in a true Islamic sense.

What's the motive in terms of the United States?

Motive in terms of the United States, as he has said very clearly, is both to destroy Saudi Arabia, and the friends of Saudi Arabia. The United States, because it has forces helping Saudi Arabia to defend itself, has become an enemy of his.

So being a friend of his enemies makes us his enemies.

Well you know, there's a long-standing saying in the Arab world, that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So maybe the friend of my enemy is my enemy.

On the street, we've been all over Africa, East Africa, New York, Arlington, Texas, talking to Muslims about this phenomenon; and what they say is that the reaction of the U.S. government has made him into, in some sense, a folk hero for people on the street who are angry with the United States, who feel the United States is the enemy of Islam.

I think that a number of things have given him notoriety; one of course is that he produced the deaths of two hundred and fifty people in Nairobi, the bulk of them Muslims, and did it in an act of abject terror of tremendous proportions. And I suspect that it was not the attention of the United States, but the attention of the world through the media to Osama bin Laden that has given him new prominence, if you like, in the eyes of Muslims, in the eyes of people around the world. It is in a sense part of the objective of terrorists, to become notorious, and to be influential through their notoriety.

So have we been playing into his hands?

No, I think not. The United States has made it very clear that his declaration of war against us is to be met in all possible ways, to defend our people, our interests, our international public, and to work very hard against him. But I think that aside from the fact of calling attention to the fact that he represented a new danger, and taking our obligation very seriously to warn our public, and even more seriously, obviously, to provide for a defense of American interests overseas ... we have not sought to build up his stature of prestige. We've left that to other people to do. ...

What we've been hearing from people in Muslim communities is [that it's merely] allegations that he is involved. There's no proof been shown yet that he's involved, [yet] he's convicted in the minds of the United States.

Of course, that's under judicial investigation, and I'm limited as to what I can say about that. But he has been indicted by the United States; the indictment has been made public. The indictment in itself is the initial effort. It had nothing to do with the subsequent bombings, and I think over a period of time, hopefully we'll see more information, but I think anybody who questions this ought to take a careful look at the information that's already been brought forward before they do so in a cavalier fashion.

Were you involved in the deliberations as to how to retaliate to the bombings or how to respond to the bombings?

Well, I'm not going to talk about my role inside the government, but I was certainly knowledgeable of the considerations that were brought to play.

How carefully, was it evaluated, about the consequences of sending missiles into two of the poorest Muslim Islamic states?

Very carefully evaluated, because they happen to have harbored, after very considerable examination of the facts, people who literally declared themselves at war with the United States and wanted to carry that war further to the United States after they had destroyed our embassies, killed a dozen Americans and two hundred and fifty Kenyans.

And you were comfortable with the idea of US missiles going into another country?

I'm never comfortable with the idea of using military force, but I felt it was extremely important in that occasion, when we could take steps to defeat efforts we knew that were being planned to be taken against us, that we do so.

And [despite] the questions about the evidence, particularly in Sudan and the pharmaceutical factory, you still were comfortable with that position?

I looked very carefully in detail at that evidence. I felt that it was a established with great scientific accuracy, and I felt it was persuasive.

In the Sudan where we were, we spent a week in Khartoum in the Sudan and the head of the Military Industrial Corporation asked us, "Why did they hit us, why did they hit a pharmaceutical factory?"

I would expect that he would say that to you. I have had the opportunity to speak to the Sudanese, and told the Sudanese that it was United States policy, that they ought to join the chemical weapons convention. They tell me they would do it in from 24 to 48 hours, of course they haven't done it yet. With that particular step, of course, they could have all the inspections they wanted. ...

President Bashir told us that in 1996 he sent a letter to the State Department saying that he would cooperate with the United States government, with the FBI, with the CIA, "You want to look at what's going on in the country, you want to checkout terrorists, chemical weapons plants, scud missiles, whatever the allegation is, you're welcome to come." He says he's still waiting for an answer from the letter, and he extended the invitation again on camera.

I know he said that, and I know he's claimed to have cooperated. We had information to the contrary, information that led us to believe that his word was not reliable with these particular circumstances, and we felt it was persuasive evidence.

That his word wasn't reliable? That we could send inspectors into the country? That we could send our law enforcement?

That his word wasn't reliable, that he wasn't cooperating. We had no interest, obviously, in inspecting his country, we had an interest in stopping his support for terrorism. We have told him what we hoped and expected he would do. He did a portion of it, but not all that we had asked of him. But he keeps telling you and others that he'll do everything we want, but he hasn't [performed it]. Just as the foreign minister told me that within 48 hours he would sign on to the chemical weapons convention, and we're still waiting.

So ... no one gets off our terrorist list, as far as I know, right? Iraq is the only country that was off for a while, and then it was back on.

... I think that has to do with a careful examination of the facts. If people don't want to be on our terrorist list, they know pretty well what they have to do to get off it.

What would they have to do?

They have to stop supporting terrorism.

What they say is, "We expelled Osama bin Laden, we [ handed over ] Carlos the Jackal--"

I know that. ... I'm not sure about Carlos the Jackal, but I know what they say they have done, and I know what it is that we had suggested to them they could do, and I know where the gaps are.

And they haven't reached that threshold?

The obvious one is the one that I told you that we suggested. That if they wanted inspections of Al Shifa, or any place else, that they could demonstrate their bona fides by, in fact, joining the chemical weapons convention, eschewing any activity in that area, and opening their country up to inspections, and [they] haven't done it. ...

Is the terrorist threat getting bigger?

I believe it is, yes.

Even though statistics on the number of incidents have decreased?

The statistics I think you've been reading are state terrorist statistics, and that may be going down. But the non-state [actors] I think have increased their activities. Osama is preeminent among them, and I think that's important to know. I think you also should know that while I can't give you statistics out of intelligence information obviously, on the number of clear indications we have of people working against us, that happily, maybe because of intelligence information and some hard work on the part of our own security people ... we haven't had as many people perhaps blown up. ... But it doesn't mean in fact that the other side in this war, that the terrorists are in any way slowing down or relaxing or going away. ...

A number of people have raised to us in the course of doing this story the assertion that because there is no more Soviet Union, we need a new enemy, a new North Star if you will, and that's Osama bin Laden, the godfather of terrorism.

Now, if you sit where I do, and you see the number of difficult problems surrounding the world, the fatuousness of the notion that we need a new enemy, or that we need new problems to deal with is self-evident. ...

[What is the] motivation of Osama bin Laden and his associates, according to the U.S. government, to do all this damage to us?

Osama bin Laden has made it very clear that he has launched a kind of jihad against Americans. He's called upon his followers to kill Americans and to damage American interests. He claims of course, that this is very much part of his crusade against the present government in Saudi Arabia. Crusade is the wrong word, I should say jihad.

The roots of this, according to many people we've talked to, Egyptians, Americans, former CIA officials, is our policies. You could take Osama bin Laden out of the mix, and his confederates, and another one would appear tomorrow.

I think the allegations are, again, completely false. If the allegation is that somehow Americans are anti-Islamic or anti-Muslim. ...

That's not the question. The question is that just like at one time we appeared to have a policy that was weighted towards the Israelis, with no recognition of the Palestinians, therefore we had a great problem with the Palestinian terrorists. Today we are we are weighted towards the Saudi regime, or towards the Egyptian regime, and therefore we have a problem with their dissidents.

I think that's an interesting point. First and foremost, you should know that while we have a lot of areas of common interest with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, [preeminent among those] is the peace process. I should tell you that Palestinians in the main, have turned from terrorist [to] partisans in the peace process in large measure, because we've played a significant mediator role in bringing that ahead. We have very strong differences in some areas. You only have to read our annual human rights report to know that in that particular area, regardless of where the country is, we call it as we see it.

But the people we talked to, Egyptians, say that when they get arrested, when they get tortured, it's by police who've been trained in the United States, with equipment provided for and paid for by the United States.

I think that of course is not true. We do very little--we haven't since Argentina 20 years ago--police training. And we've been very, very careful about that. ... The key areas where we do it is in things like money laundering. But I know those are common canards, and there will be always cases where people profess to see American interests contrary to theirs. The facts, however, I think speak to the contrary.

The fact that we support the Mubarak regime with over two billion dollars in aid.

We worked very closely with it in the peace process, and it has been a very important part of where we're going. But if you read the human rights report you will see very clearly what we say about the Mubarak regime, open and in public to the Congress, and to all the people in the United States and the world, about the concerns that we have in the areas that you've just raised with me.

And the Saudi regime?

Well, of course. They're all in the book, and any other regime around the world, China, you name it.

So this Muslim anger that's coming up in the street, that we saw in Mombasa, or in Dar es Salaam, it's misplaced, misdirected?

I believe it is. I don't think we consider it unimportant, but I believe it is misplaced and misdirected, it misperceives American policy. Maybe it means ... that we need to continue do a better job with our public diplomacy, in getting the story over to these people. ...

You don't sense that it's because we are allied with people who are responsible for these human rights violations ... that we are therefore becoming targets ourselves.

No, I think we seek to get them to change, where we have objections to what they do. We stand around the world for human rights and for better practices, for open economic systems, for democratic systems of governments, we make that very clear. We don't pull our punches on those issues. ...

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